Badgers still have much to prove in Big Ten
MADISON, Wis. — Legendary NFL coach Bill Parcells used to preach the idea that "you are what your record says you are." If, for example, an NFL team finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs by one fluke play in one game, well, that didn't mean it should be considered a playoff team.
In his opinion, the truest measurement of a team's success comes down simply to whether it wins or loses, regardless of how it happens.
Given that line of thought, Wisconsin's men's basketball team should be considered among the toast of the Big Ten right now. The Badgers, 11-4 overall, are undefeated in Big Ten play through Week 1 of games, 2-0 for the first time in three seasons. It is an accomplishment that surely deserves at least a modicum of (brief) celebration.
But if we take a closer look, what does that 2-0 mark really mean at this stage? How much of that unblemished early record is a mirage? And what can we realistically expect from the Badgers with 16 regular-season conference games remaining?
To start, even the most optimistic Badgers fan would be wise to demonstrate great caution. Wisconsin had to fight to hold off Penn State 60-51 at home and then rally for a 47-41 victory against Nebraska on the road. It could be argued (and most folks likely would agree) that the Nittany Lions and Cornhuskers are the two worst teams in the conference. Both programs tied for last place a year ago in the Big Ten, combining to finish 8-28 in league games. Although each team appears to have made progress this season, neither will come close to keeping pace with the rest of the Big Ten pack.
Wisconsin's inability to escape either team until the final minutes should say something about this year's Badgers unit, and those shortcomings may be revealed soon enough. Beginning Saturday with a home game against No. 12 Illinois, nine of Wisconsin's next 11 games come against Big Ten teams ranked in the Associated Press top 25 poll. The other two games take place against a much-improved Iowa team that swept Wisconsin a season ago.
Badgers coach Bo Ryan acknowledged difficult times were coming during his weekly Big Ten coaches teleconference on Monday. He remarked that while both Penn State and Nebraska have one or two strengths offensively, other teams would present more significant challenges.
"We know how tough the league is, and we know how effective offensively three, four five teams are that can beat you inside, play transition and outside shots," Ryan said. "We've got some teams in the league this year with the full package offensively."
He then admitted that Wisconsin was "struggling to have a full package offensively."
How rough has it been for the Badgers in their two conference victories?
The sample size is small, but Wisconsin ranks 10th out of 12 Big Ten teams in scoring offense, averaging just 53.5 points per game The Badgers are 11th out of 12 in free throw percentage (16 of 39 for 41.0 percent), 11th in field goal percentage (38.2 percent) and last in 3-point field goal percentage (20.6 percent).
Those numbers against two of the worst Big Ten teams will have to shift dramatically for the Badgers to have an opportunity to reach their 15th consecutive NCAA Tournament.
"It's all about believing that next one is going to go in," Ryan said. "Most of the guys taking the 3s are younger players that do not have the experience in the Big Ten like we had coming into the past few seasons. That's not making an excuse for the low percentage, but I think if we can get a couple games where we knock some down and the guys believe, I think it can turn around. That's why averages are averages. Because it takes in a larger sample size."
Ryan often says that percentages can be skewed based on which player is taking the shots, and that has hurt this year's team. Forward Ryan Evans, a once reliable free-throw shooter, has made just 3 of 14 foul shots in two Big Ten games (21.4 percent) and has inexplicably struggled all season in that area. And Wisconsin's underclassmen are 2 of 12 on 3-point attempts in conference play thus far.
Those numbers should improve simply because they can't get much worse over the next 16 games. And there could be more reason for optimism based on the positives that have taken place in two ugly conference victories.
Wisconsin's senior-laden frontcourt of Evans, Mike Bruesewitz and Jared Berggren are finally showing the consistency and leadership the team demands. Despite his poor foul shooting, Evans is averaging 11.5 points and 12.0 rebounds in conference play, Berggren 13.0 points and 3.0 blocks and Bruesewitz 8.5 points and 9.0 rebounds.
The biggest question mark has surrounded how point guards Traevon Jackson and George Marshall would adapt once thrust into a bigger role this season. Fused into one player, Jackson and Marshall have put up solid, though not spectacular, numbers. The two have combined to average 9.9 points with 3.9 assists and 1.6 turnovers for the entire season. Last year, preseason All-America point guard Jordan Taylor averaged 14.8 points with 4.1 assists and 1.6 turnovers.
The saving grace, beyond any individual statistics, is Wisconsin's ability to continue adhering to its staunch defensive principles this season under Ryan. Wisconsin ranks ninth in the country in scoring defense, allowing 54.9 points per game. In two Big Ten games, the Badgers have surrendered an average of 46.0 points per game.
No other Big Ten team averages fewer than 57.0 points allowed per game through the first week of conference play.
"It's one of those things where if our guys just keep working the principles," Ryan said, "we always feel that our defense can keep us in games and give us a chance."
In the end, Wisconsin is what its record says it is, and 2-0 is as good as anybody. But we'll know a heck of a lot more about what that really means after the Badgers have completed their 11-game gauntlet through the toughest college basketball conference in the country.
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